Thursday, March 13, 2008

Onomatopeia: More Morphine, Please

According to Wiktionary, onomatopeia is defined thusly: the coining of a word in imitation of a sound.

This word has always fascinated me. The idea that our language would create words that approximate the thing itself seems crude and brilliant at the same time.

Today I write about Morphine. Now, I've never taken morphine. As far as I know, the drug doesn't make a sound. So the creation of the word does not provide an example of onomatopeian influence.

But then there is the band. For the uninitiated, what follows is a brief history of one of the most unique sounds you'll ever come across.

There was a Boston blues band called Treat Her Right. They had two singer/songwriters who traded off leading the band. They weren't the kind of blues band that takes up residence at your local bar and pounds 'Mustang Sally' to death and put colorful handkerchiefs in their vest pockets. No, the vibe was much more underground rock/punk but the sound was clearly a blues sound.

If you've never heard of Treat Her Right don't sweat it. I grew up in Rhode Island and never heard of them. They broke up before they could make much of a dent.

While in college I started hearing bizarre tales about this band called Morphine. The lineup was as follows...

They were a trio. The lead singer played a TWO STRING BASS. He simply took the higher two strings off of the bass. Saxophone player. Drummer. A power trio??? With no guitar??? Only two strings??? What the hell were these guys thinking?

The lead singer/bass player's name was Mark Sandman. Sandman? Are you kidding me? He truly seems to embody the name. His music is a call to dreams.

And then there was the name. The drug morhpine had held a curious fascination for me ever since I'd played a morphine addict in a high school production of 'A Hatful of Rain'. It semed to come from ancient times. The idea of injecting myself with anything has always been abhorrent to me but I can't deny that I suffer from the romanticization of this particular drug. The music Morphine began releasing did nothing to change that.

If you've never heard Morhpine I would rather you stop reading right now and go out and purchase some of it. It doesn't matter which album you buy, they are all outstanding.

How can such limited instrumentation sound so full? Full to bursting? I've been listening to Morhpine for almost 20 years now and I still can't figure it out.

Mark Sandman died onstage in Italy in 1999. I was lucky enough to have seen them in concert while I lived in Providence in the early '90's. I saw them at Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel which isn't my favorite club of all time (I've already written about The Living Room) but it is still quite special.

The lights went down so low you had a hard time seeing your hand in front of your face. Then this deep rumbling started slowly rollicking from the two strings left on Sandman's bass. The drums thundered softly behind. Then the sax drifted in on top, distorted into some strange psychic broadcast. At one point the sax player played two saxophones at once, each filtered through effects pedals so they were clearly distinct.

Now, as I stated earlier, I've never taken morphine. But this performance was narcotic. I stood there in the dark unable to move. I could barely think. It was as if simply naming themselves Morphine had given their music hallucinogenic properties.

Onomatopeia. The word 'morphine' doesn't sound like what happens in your brain on morphine but I'm pretty sure Morhpine does.

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